All posts filed under “Cultural Theory

Interview with Walker Downey

My interview with Walker Downey proved too substantive to limit to just one episode of Dangerous History. You can listen to Part One here, and Part Two over here. Walker examines the intersection of “experimental music” and “sound art,” a transdisciplinary, technological practice that evolved over the decades between WWII and Vietnam. Together we discuss works that fall between the purview of art history and musicology, with a focus on the subversive nature of noise as a category of experience. The institutions and figures around which these compositions or performances accreted are considered alongside the determinative nature of media itself (magnetic tape, for example) in an attempt to determine their relative significance. A project about radio-as-art, on the radio, in two parts.

Walker Downey’s current research is focused on a cross-disciplinary network of American artists, musicians, and dancers that used media such as magnetic recording tape, FM radio, and transistor electronics to carry out experiments with electronic sound in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. At this time, new experimental milieus and stylistic vocabularies took shape within underground music studios, city discotheques, and independent radio stations as diverse practitioners converged around the creative affordances of particular media. He is interested in these hybrid traditions of experimental sound that exceed historical categories such as “sound art” and “electronic music.” As Walker’s research explores, these traditions were distinguished not only by their defiance of disciplinarity and medium-specificity, but by a politically driven engagement with understandings of technological “function” and “dysfunction,” “communication” and “interference” central to the intellectual climate of the Cold War.

Walker listening to the trees
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Typography in Portugal

Art Deco typography is ubiquitous in Portuguese cities. In many ways, it seems that the commercial areas of Porto and Lisbon ceased to evolve aesthetically at the moment António de Oliveira Salazar became President in 1932. His corporatist authoritarian government ruled until 1968. I’m very interested in the “lusotropical” Portuguese colonial project as part of my southern African research.  This semester I’m writing about Brazilian photographer Angélica Dass and her Humanae project, matching the skin tones of her numerous subjects with pantone chart colors. More on that text soon… in the meantime, enjoy this font of fonts.



I was struck by a line in an article I read for my Harvard class, “Modern Speech and Other Kinds of Testimony,” by historian Megan Vaughan. The class, Themes in Modern African History, is taught by the formidable Caroline Elkins, who is generous with her time despite her demanding schedule, for which I am very grateful. The article is about the slippery nature of historical consciousness, and the ways in which the historian can unwittingly manipulate her subjects’ “identity.” Vaughan is interested in the missing pre-history of the Creole community in Mauritius, of which she writes:

“Creole intellectuals make the very valid point that their history begins on the island—their origins lie in métissage, in creolité itself, and not in a mythic origin moment which came before.” 1

This sentence resonates with my own struggle to decipher and iterate my own historical identity. Like many Americans, I like to delve into the various family histories of past generations, which extend to many different ethnic and geographical origins. Yet despite the “truth” of this mixing, it is always assumed I have a European origin, and further it is assumed that I will myself have chosen a preferred ethnicity with which to identify. In the quote above, there is freedom: forget the past; you’re an American, with all the mixing that implies.

Ashes to Ashes

The Second Life of Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Afrofuturist Critique

(This is the first bit of  a paper I wrote for my methods class in fall, 2013)

African artists born to a post-independence continent,[1] curiously placed in the temporal limbo engendered by their new nations’ violently dynamic notions of future and past, are socially empowered as image-makers to realign, reshape, and rename the world. The African artist’s process is an enactment of his nation’s negotiation with modernity; the artist is an “historical agent capable of representing the modern condition in which he is working.”[2] Using methods similar to Dadaist bricolage, Afrofuturism seizes upon this chronological purgatory as a site for uncanny cultural remixes. Science fiction narratives offer a compelling populist opening to such rewritten cultural autobiographies.

In Spaceship Icarus 13 (2008), Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda (born 1979, Luanda) harnesses Afrofuturist memes to present a vision of the future based on a reimagined past, channeling an unlikely combination of satire and utopianism, irony and hope. Spaceship Icarus 13—an architectural model, a story, and a series of eight photographs—”documents” the creation of Africa’s first space base and humanity’s first mission to the sun. Henda’s spaceship is a reappropriated item of totalitarian kitsch,[3] a late 1970s era Soviet-designed mausoleum for Agostinho Neto, Angola’s Marxist-leaning first president. Within this mausoleum-cum-spaceship, enhanced in Henda’s narrative by icons of American consumerism and Angolan devastation—Budweiser and diamonds—the artist sends Neto’s ashes up to burn. The violence of this second destruction, from ashes to ashes, is both piercing and poignant. It encapsulates Henda’s artistic critique of Angola’s long civil war, its lost human potential, and its current political and economic climate.

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Yohann Gène: Pioneer

I‘ve been watching the Tour de France this summer, awed by the physical prowess of the 190+ cyclists who brave the equivalent (it is said) of marathon after marathon, for three weeks straight. The American commentary is on Versus, an NBC satellite, with two seasoned Brits at the call and a former American competitor offering color commentary. There are not too many Americans in the Tour, and only one in the running for an overall victory, so most time is spent analyzing team tactics and supposed individual rivalries (the channel, after all, is called “versus.”)

The other day I noticed a man with dark skin among the sea of white riders. Quite a tan, I thought foolishly, and then I realized he must be African or part African. I was shocked to realize that he is, in fact, the only man of African descent in the entire Tour. His name is Yohann Gène, a Frenchman whose family is from Guadaloupe (a French territory), riding for Team Europcar. Most Tour cycling teams are based in one European nation or another, but all have international rosters. Despite this, and despite Europe’s rising racial diversity, most riders represent a single ethnic group from a wholly European source. That is, the Tour is not diverse; it is neither representative of the world at large nor even of the modern population of Europe.

I can’t imagine that cycling is such a narrow sport that more Asian or African or South American riders would not be qualified to ride in the Tour, as prestigious as it is. This is a sorry statement for modern Europe to make, given the recent tides of racial unrest in countries like France and Denmark, and the rise of nationalist, anti-immigration parties across the continent.

One might think that, given the complete lack of reporting about Gène on Versus or anywhere else, that having a rider of African descent on one’s team is not such a big deal. Wrong. Team Europcar’s manager says, “We have been subject to racism. I had to deal with a few problems and contact sponsors of two foreign teams about it. After the doping incidents, I couldn’t let racism be part of cycling.” Are you serious? This is happening? What decade is this?

This is, clearly, not a post about architecture, but I’m so incensed that I thought I’d vent a little rage here in this blog. To clarify, I’m angry that no major news outlet is reporting on this major breakthrough, and I’m angry that elite athletes and their managers would turn out to be racist.  I am not a jingoistic sort, but as an American I feel the least I can do is champion the principles of civil rights that have allowed our culture to thrive. Maybe we can get Versus to cover Gène’s story. Put a comment on the Versus Facebook cycling page, or tweet @bobkeroll (the Versus American commentator) and let them know that breaking ancient racial barriers is important to you. Thanks!

For Yayoi




I’ve long been a fan of Yayoi Kusama. She’s an important Japanese artist whose work resonates with the specific compulsions of modern women worldwide. Her dots series, installations covered in dots—on walls, on people, on trees, on things—are mesmerizing. Using this simple technique, Kusama creates these eerie immersive environments. For me, they represent certain obsessions: obsessions with the body and its perception, its shapes and holes and uses; an obsession with control. The images above of flower petals on the ground from the early weeks of May reminded me of her.

Kusama did much of her seminal work in New York, but returned to Tokyo in 1973 and has been living in a mental institution almost ever since. Paranoid schizophrenic, I believe. Many of her works are inspired by her hallucinations. There’s a great picture of her Self-Obliteration by Dots, a still of a performance from 1968, in BOMB Magazine’s interview. Another iconic set of works is the accumulation series, wherein Kusama glued protuberances to cover entire objects and whole surfaces. She posed with one of these pieces, Accumulation No.2, once perhaps a couch, and MoMA has the photo. It was printed on the Kusama Retrospective poster back in 1998, “Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968.” I put it up in my father’s former studio for inspiration. I thought of her more as a baby doll back then, looking so coquettish. Now she uses that same silhouette as a brand on her website.